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Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
Marjorie C. Malley
Oxford University Press, 2011
280 pp., $23.95

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Science in Focus: Michael G. Stabin


Radioactivity, Part 3

Some pieces missing

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Marjorie Malley's Radioactivity is a well-written and scholarly book intended to appeal to a general readership and explain a subject that is quite mysterious to many. The book gives many details about the sequence of events that led from the discovery of radiation and radioactivity to many applications in science and technology.

Most of Malley's account centers on the fascinating period around the turn of the 20th century, when these world-changing discoveries had been made but still were poorly understood. I love telling my students about the ingenious experiments devised by the scientists of this time, whose understanding of the atom was still forming, and who of course had very limited technical equipment by today's standards, but nevertheless made incredibly accurate measurements of these phenomena involving atoms and subatomic structures. My greatest hero in this life, Marie Curie, is featured heavily Malley's narrative, which was very gratifying to me, and I learned some details about her that I did not know before. My favorite part was Chapter 10, on the discovered health effects; there was much good material there that I had not encountered before.

While I appreciated the breadth of Malley's research, I found the style of the book excessively detached. Without compromising accuracy, she could have enlivened her narrative with more attention to the personal drama of science. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the human beings behind this pathbreaking work—for instance, the change in Marie Curie's overall demeanor after the death of her husband, Pierre, or the feeling between Soddy and Fajans that each was stealing the other's ideas. In the final chapter, suddenly a bit more emotion is exposed, but just as things are wrapping up.

In a brisk overview such as this, it is impossible to cover the subject in depth. Still, several important topics deserving emphasis are given very brief treatment or are missing altogether:

  • The incident with the Radium Dial Painters is described, but this is a fascinating and dramatic episode that drew the attention of the whole world, include Mme. Curie, and which was resolved with the intervention of a dentist!
  • The U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are discussed in a single sentence, with no discussion of the ecological and emotional impact of the radioactive fallout. The incident at Chernobyl is not mentioned. (The crisis at Fukushima occurred too near the time of publication to be included.)
  • The Manhattan Project, in which the "Pandora's Box" of issues with radiation and radioactivity was opened, and where we made the most advances in our understanding, is not discussed.
  • The contamination incident involving the Marshallese Islanders is omitted.
  • The important international agencies and scientific advisory bodies that have standardized our understanding of this science are also not mentioned.
  • The huge impact of the understanding of radioactivity in the area of nuclear medicine is poorly discussed.

The glossary in the appendices should be much longer; however, the Timeline Appendix is superb. I am very glad to have this book as a reference; I just did not find it as readable as I would have liked, and was bothered by the material not treated well.

Michael G. Stabin is associate professor of radiology and radiological sciences at Vanderbilt University.

See also:

Timothy F. Slater, Radioactivity, Part 1

Ian Hutchinson, Radioactivity, Part 2

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